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What Does It Mean to Talk About "Jewish Values"?
Episode 3014th July 2022 • Conversation with the Rabbi • Rabbi Michael Beyo | PHX.fm
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Rabbi Michael Beyo and Dr. Adrian McIntyre discuss "Jewish values" and whether or not that phrase is a meaningful way of talking about Jewish life.

Conversation with the Rabbi is a project of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, neighborhood organization that has served individuals and families inclusive of all races, religions, and cultures since 1972. Visit us online at https://www.evjcc.org

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Announcer:

From PHX.fm, this is Conversation with the Rabbi -- featuring open, honest dialogue, and sometimes unconventional perspectives on the world we all share.

Adrian McIntyre:

Welcome to another Conversation with the Rabbi, I'm Adrian McIntyre. "Jewish values." It's a phrase you hear more and more these days as many different kinds of organizations, religious institutions, cultural centers are trying to establish a sense of identity, sameness, difference in a complex world. Here to talk about this issue and share some unique and sometimes unconventional perspectives about it is the host of this show, Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center. Hi, Rabbi.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Good morning, Adrian. How are you?

Adrian McIntyre:

I'm very well, thank you. We've done so many episodes of this podcast in which guests from a variety of traditions have talked about the topic of values, Christian values, Muslim values, maybe even different denominations within Christianity. The church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a conversation with themselves about Mormon values and so on. And one of the things that has come up over and over with regard to Jewish values is you saying something like, I don't really know what that is, and I'm a rabbi and I have some thoughts about this and I see the word being used. So let's have a conversation about that, you and I. Tell me a little bit about why you respond to the phrase Jewish values by saying, what is that?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

That's a wonderful question because everybody has a different opinion of what Jewish values are. And so it's like saying the word love, it's so ephemeral, it's so virtual. Can we really define love? Every person will define it differently. And unfortunately, unfortunately, and I am just mentioning this as a conceptual comparison, some people may abuse relationships and they still call it love. And so a person could be in an abusive relationship, but they think that is love. And everybody else looks from the outside and says, no, you don't understand. That's not love. And so what love is, it's a huge Pandora box and everybody has their own opinion. When it comes to values, often, not about specifically Jewish values, but values in general. I don't ... I come from a school of thought that I do not believe that objectively there are human values that everybody accepts at all the time, no matter where, what, no matter the time or space or conditions. I'll give you an example. I am not a pacifist, but if I were to be a pacifist, then I would need to allow a potential killer to kill me. Because if I am a true pacifist, I abhor the use of power. I abhor the use of strength against another human being or against an animal. That would be a position of complete honesty with myself, but I'm not a pacifist. So if somebody were to try to attack me, I will defend myself. So when we talk about values, I am not saying about values in general, people use those terms without, in my opinion, paying deep attention to what they are saying. So are there human values? Well, we can say that Western society in the 20th Century, post World War II, has developed certain human values that most people agree, but that does not mean that those values will remain with us in 100 years from today. I am sure that Genghis Khan thought that his behavior was very good behavior. We know that the Nazis thought that their behavior was a very good behavior. So what are values, everybody uses that word to justify their own behavior.

Adrian McIntyre:

So this is a really good point. And I'm not sure I agree with you on the definition of pacifism, by the way, but as way of making a point as a contrast, I think it's valid. The opposite of pacifism is not self-defense, it's war, but anyway ... I think that the idea about values, what are values and why do we use that phrase is very important. Certainly, as someone who was raised in a Christian environment, and as I've said many times on the show, left any sense of connection to that belief system, certainly to that institutional framework in my early teens, the phrase "Christian values" has been used oftentimes by people who seem to be talking about something other than what Jesus of Nazareth was preaching as reflected in the texts this tradition turns to as a source. So the values of Jesus don't seem to be what people are talking about when they say "Christian values," because they're often using that term to exclude people or behaviors, to pass a judgment, if you will. Seems that way to me anyway, I'm sure there's a counter argument to that. Likewise, we've also seen the phrase, even more vague, "family values," become a kind of code word for being pro monogamous, heterosexual marriage, anti homosexuality or any other form of self-expression that doesn't fit those simple, clear boxes. We've seen it. Family values being used to advocate against the access of women to healthcare and reproductive choice. We've seen the phrase be used in so many ways. And basically what they're saying is we don't approve of those things. And the way we express our disapproval is with this phrase, which sounds good. Family values. Is the phrase Jewish values used in a similar way, or does it have a different use? In other words, is it used by people who're saying we disapprove of X?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

No, no, it is used in a different way. But before we go to Jewish values, let me just add one thought that I have about values in general. Let's take the example that you were mentioning now about family values. So let's take a very conservative person that disapproves of any sort of family construct that is different than the monogamous male female relationship. So he calls that family values. Do I agree that is family values? Sure. But I also think that if a gay couple wants to call their family structure "family values," absolutely. That's also family values. So what I'm trying to say is that the term values, everybody uses it and they mean different things sometimes. It's very difficult, if not impossible to find concept of values that are historical, that are universal. I also, for example, I don't understand the concept of universal values. When in the history of humanity, we have found universal values? No, we can speak about in certain periods of time, a specific group of people share certain types of values and they decide to call it universal values. Who decided that that's universal? We can probably find as many people that disagree with that universality of those values. So I have my set of values, which some of them I'm even willing to fight and to argue for them. And I have other values that maybe are not so important. But what I'm trying to say is values is not something that is objective. It's subjective to each person, to each culture, to each nation. I am a moral relativist in that. I don't believe that there is universal concept of morality. There is the concept of morality that comes from my family, my community, my religion, my history, which may be similar to yours. And so there, when you and I have a conversation, we can agree to a certain set of moralities. But if I came from a different country, different time, different space, we may completely disagree on our morals and what are our moral values or ethical behavior. And that is what often brings people to fight, to war because of different understanding of sets of values. I had a teacher who used to say during World War II, the value of Nazism was to kill everybody that they deemed was not Aryan. And the value of America was, in the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, was to provide a glass of milk to every child. Those are two different sets of values. And maybe for that reason, sometimes people go to war. People go to war because of what they perceive to be their value. Can be land, money, power, religion, freedom, whatever. When it comes to Jewish values, it's interesting because when I was growing up, I never really used the term Jewish values. This is a term that I encountered when I left Italy, when I came to United States and I see people using this terminology of Jewish values. And then when I ask, okay, what are those Jewish values? People tell me, oh, welcoming the guest. Oh, okay, cool. I did not know that's a specific Jewish value because I've been welcomed by my Christian friends and my Muslim friends. I guess that they are using Jewish values, and they don't know that's a Jewish value. I am saying this sarcastically because how can we say that welcoming the guest is a Jewish value as if it's not a Christian value? Oh, so they tell me no, no, it's also Christian value. So then I ask, okay, so then what's the difference? Why are you calling it a Jewish value? Oh, because we express it in a different way. Because we express, this is the answer that was given to me by an educator in the JCC world. And he says to me, "because we express it by inviting people to our home and by providing challah." Okay. "And the Christians express it by having Thanksgiving dinner." But also Jews have Thanksgiving and you don't have to be Jewish to eat a challah. So all of this, in my opinion, I struggle with, not because I don't believe that there are Jewish values. I struggle because I believe that people, that a lot of people that use the terminology "Jewish values," what they mean are Western values. And in my opinion, Jewish values are something completely different. Jewish values, in my opinion, are what makes Judaism different than other traditions. Just like there are Christian values. Just like there are Muslim values. Like there are Bahai values. I'm sure that each tradition, each country, each people has specific way of looking at things, way to relate to others, that create a certain set of values for that group of people. They're not better. They're not worse than others. They're different.

Adrian McIntyre:

Let me bring up another very specific example and use this as a way for you to reflect on some distinctions. The term "values" is often used in an expansive way. It sort of collapses the subtleties involved. I want to refer to something that I honestly haven't thought about until we started this conversation just now, but it comes out of my own direct experience. So I was raised a Seventh-day Adventist Christian. Seventh-day Adventists are part of a Protestant movement, a context in which several new religious expressions emerged in New England in the 19th century. I was raised Adventist, and I went to Adventist schools, elementary school, junior high, high school. They were four blocks from my house and that was the community we lived in, et cetera. So it made perfect sense. When I was in high school, I was a junior in high school, the Adventist Church, which is a global church with conferences all around the world, representing many different believers in different cultures. It's a missionary tradition. So it has spread all over. They started a research study called Valuegenesis. I literally hadn't thought about this until after you started talking, which is funny. I was a junior in high school and it was a survey that I think we even had to take it at school, but they had, I don't know, maybe 20,000 respondents to the first Valuegenesis survey. And it was an attempt to try to understand the faith, kind of take the temperature of the church and its members. Where are they at with faith, with adherence to church doctrine. Adventists have a very specific set of regulations that they say makes them Adventist. They go to church on Saturday, not Sunday. They follow the teachings of a prophet, Ellen G. White, who wrote a strict set of interpretations of the Hebrew Bible in which we also had a code about what to eat and what not to eat. It's not the same as kosher law, et cetera, but it gets into that territory a little bit. And the Valuegenesis study, I remember now, being briefed on the results. And it was interesting because what they found was that surprise, surprise, the youth are growing away from the traditions of the church. I mean, this is 1989, 1990, right? And so every youth, probably in every generation, if you ask them, the youth are listening to Elvis, they're growing away from...

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Nothing is new under the sun.

Adrian McIntyre:

Ironically, now this is where the cynical side of me comes in a little bit, the Valuegenesis study. They did it again, I think 10 years later, and maybe another 10 years. The Valuegenesis results were used as a case for action for why there should be very well-funded youth centers. And the cynic in me wants to point out that the people who did the study are the same people who ended up running these centers and paying themselves a very nice salary to do this work funded by the church, et cetera. That's probably unfair for me to point out, but it does, now reflecting back on this 30 years later, seem interesting that the results were, we need to engage the youth. What are we going to do? Build fancy youth centers. Who's going to run them? We are. It's interesting to me that what they were looking at in this study is a blend of things. So now having trained as a social scientist, reflecting back, and I don't remember the survey instrument, I have no idea what the actual questions were. I'm sure it had a lot of thought that went into it. But what they were asking about was a combination of beliefs. Do you believe X, Y, and Z, because the church had a set of core beliefs. Then there was kind of affinity related questions. How do you feel, do you feel connected to the church? Do you feel like you belong? Do you feel like they take you seriously, things of that nature. And then there was a number of set of questions about practices. Adventists are vegetarians. So it's like, are you a vegetarian or not? And I'm sure 75% said, no, because real life. Et cetera, et cetera, faith, beliefs, a sense of belonging, and practices. Do you do the things that Adventists say we do that makes us different? The fact that all of that stuff was lumped together under the heading of values is very interesting. Beliefs or ideas, morals, ideals, and practices, is a similar thing, now that I've kind of laid out this example, is a similar thing relevant in the Jewish context?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Let me pick up on something that you mentioned and maybe talk more about my understanding of Jewish values and refer to your question. I think that when we look at Jewish values, it's something that we need to, first of all, look at Jewish values throughout history, meaning is there a common denominator among different Jews in different geographical areas in different times, that is a common thread? And if there is, then maybe we can call that a Jewish value. Because if there isn't, then it means that my values are not Jewish, but are connected to the society within which I am currently living. I think that this would make sense.

Adrian McIntyre:

Yes. And this is, I want to just underline before you continue, a key part of this whole thing seems to be an "us and them" idea. We do this, they do that.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Right. So when I look at Jewish peoplehood throughout the ages, the only common denominator is adherence to Jewish law, more, less, within this boundary, within that boundary. But the conversation is Jewish behavior, according to Jewish text and different in different time periods and in different places. Different communities interpreted maybe Jewish law, little bit to the right, a little bit to the left, a little bit like this, a little bit like that, but the common denominator of those communities throughout history, throughout geography is the acceptance of that community to live according to Jewish practices, Jewish law. And just as a reminder to our listeners, Jewish law encompasses everything from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep and everything in between. Meaning Jewish law is not like, maybe not a tradition, something that is ritualistic only, something that you only do once a week or once a day when you are in the place of worship. No. Jewish law is all encompassing of every moment of our life. What we dress, what we eat, who we marry, et cetera, et cetera. But that is the common denominator. Is it a Jewish value to ... is equity a Jewish value? I would claim no, not because equity is wrong. Equity might be a wonderful value, but it is a relatively modern Western European value. We don't find a concept of equity throughout the Jewish history. It does not mean that it's a bad value. It's a modern Western value. We don't even find this concept of equity in Asia necessarily. We don't find it in Africa. We don't find it in other communities right now. I know that we find it in America or in certain even communities within America, not even everybody in America accepts the concept of equity.

Adrian McIntyre:

There's certainly a concept of justice ...

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yes, yes.

Adrian McIntyre:

... and it's different. It is different in every place and it has different legal and cultural aspects and expressions. But the way we use equity today in the context, for example, of diversity, inclusion, and equity ..

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Right.

Adrian McIntyre:

... is a specific contextual thing that you wouldn't find in many of those other traditions.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Exactly. That is the only thing that I'm trying to point out. While Jewish values is something to do with continuity of what is the common denominator of Jewish history, experience, tradition, just like Christian values has to be something that is in the continuum from the teaching of Jesus until today. So for me, Jewish values are observing Jewish law and it is everything that is included within those parameters. Now, some people may want to stretch and say, well, we can find Jewish text that would support concept of equity. Therefore equity is also Jewish values. So those kinds of approaches, I find them to be anachronistic. Is you have a target, and then you point, you circle around, you have a dot and then you circle around the target. And the reason that I hold my position is because again, not because equity is a wrong value, but because we don't find it throughout Jewish history, as a common denominator among all Jews in all places. I find that the communities that use Jewish values the most within a Jewish context are the non-Orthodox communities. Within Orthodoxy, I find that concept of mitzvah, what you are obligated to do and what you are not obligated to do, what is permissible and not permissible. Again, we're talking within the concept of Jewish tradition and Jewish law and way of life. Those are the conversation and those are the conversation when people talk about values. And I find that in the non-Orthodox communities where maybe traditional adherence to Jewish law in all of its minutia, is not practiced, that is when we find Jewish communities elevating Western values and saying those are Jewish values.

Adrian McIntyre:

You raise an interesting point about universalism and particularism in this conversation. Reflecting on what you said, I think it is valid to assert that the universalism claims are just that. They are an argument for something, not the reflection of an already existing something. When we see claims being put forth that have this universalist label starting, for example, in Europe, during the Enlightenment, when a certain kind of natural philosopher, philosophe, as they were called at the time, began to think what if our ideals are in fact, the best ideals and should be universal ideals. Of course, those are very specific. They were located in a specific historical, social, cultural, class and race context. And yet they were claiming to be universal. The Geneva Conventions, which emerged in the wake of the Second World War and discussions about human rights and universal human rights began to be formulated. State parties were invited to sign on to covenants, conventions, agreements, and so on that said, we agree to uphold certain things. The language of those conventions was universal human rights. And the reality was the absence of those things in the world. We had just experienced the most horrific conflict of perhaps all time, although there are many horrific conflicts, certainly the scale of the war itself, not to mention the attempt to exterminate every single Jew and other person who disagreed with the Nazis in Europe was something that brought the world to serious pause as it should and should continue to. And the claims that were being made were about universal rights. But again, that was an assertion of something, not a natural fact of something. Maybe it included philosophically the claim that such things should be natural rights. But anyway, that was an argument that had to be made. Here's where the interesting thing comes into play. There might be a tension, an opposition between those kind of universalist claims, let's call them Enlightenment and its derivatives, ideas about, and those are Western claiming to be universal, and the particularist claims of a Muslim jurisprudence point of view, a Jewish jurisprudence, legal point of view that says, no, no, no. We're addressing one people, community, bound by covenant and committed to a set of practices that define who we are. Some of those practices might also be called beliefs because to believe is an action. But fundamentally, as you've pointed out many times on this show, Jewish practices are not a faith type thing. They are a doing and not doing type thing. Do you think that it is possible for someone or a community to hold both, to hold post-Enlightenment, Western ideas about universal human dignity and so on, and to adhere to the particulars which are behavioral focused of Jewish law?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

You can up to a point. There will be times, sometimes more, sometimes less, sometimes more often, sometimes less, that there's going to be a direct conflict. And let me give you some examples. Is it humane to kill an animal the way that it is prescribed by Sharia and by Jewish law? I am sure that there are less painful ways to kill a cow, but that would contravene both Sharia law and Jewish culture law. That's why in Europe, where they try to ban Halal meat and Kosher meat, you find a wonderful and strange, but wonderful coalition between Muslims and Jews to fight against those laws that want to ban us, Jews and Muslim, from killing the animals the way that we want to kill them. That's a direct conflict of values between animal rights humanely treating of animals and how Jews and Muslims understand what is humanely treating of animals. I'll give you another example. Would any of us agree to take a minor and cut his finger? I think that any thinking person would say no. And I say, but I'm just going to cut a little tip. It's not going to damage him. It's not going to damage the way that he uses his hands, because it's just the tip of the pinky. And he will be able to function wonderfully in society. We would all agree that if a father were to cut the little pinky, just a little bit of his eight days old child, that would be abuse.

Adrian McIntyre:

We're not really talking about pinkies, are we?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

No, but that's the issue. We, Jews and Muslims, sometimes at different stages of life, but still as minors ...

Adrian McIntyre:

Infancy.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

No, Muslims can do it up to 13 years old. But I'm saying they're still minors in the eyes of society. We, at the age of eight days, we perform circumcision. I understand the humanist that says it's an abuse against a human being. And I say to the humanist, you're right. I'm not a humanist. I am a Jew that wants to perform what is a Jewish value. Or I am a Muslim that wants to perform what is a Muslim value. And the fact that from a human value, humanist value perspective, this is an abuse of power. This is an abuse of another human being. Yeah, you're right. It is. So it's a direct in your face conflict.

Adrian McIntyre:

Yes. And there are many, many topics like this and we won't dive deep into any of them, but certainly the conflicts in several countries in Africa, including Arab countries in North Africa, over female genital mutilation, what's sometimes called female circumcision, which I think the realities of that practice, if they were described, would be horrifying to Western ears and sensibilities. And the United Nations, UNIFEM, UNICEF, the many different agencies that specialize in different aspects of development, which are out there trying to raise the bar and lot, if you will, improve the life and livelihood of everyone everywhere are certainly working against these practices, which are viewed as barbaric cultural practices. At the same time, I can imagine having a conversation with an elder in one of those tribes saying, this is what defines us as a people. Who are you to come and tell us this? So it gets back to this relativism. Do we just let everyone do what they want versus universalism saying, no, no, no. We have to intervene because it's no longer acceptable for this to persist, et cetera. We're coming up on the end of this conversation. I want to turn this in a direction to give you one last pass at this. You mentioned Orthodoxy. And the fact that the phrase Jewish values is most commonly used in contexts which are not Orthodox contexts, whether they're Reform, Conservative, the JCC movement, et cetera. Orthodoxy, you've said on this show, is the fastest growing of the Jewish denominations. Why is that, in your opinion, and where do you think the folks of today who are looking for answers to the challenges that they face, we all face, but we face differently. Why do you think people are turning to Orthodoxy and away from what might be called those universal Western frameworks?

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Yeah, it is not my opinion at Orthodoxy is the fastest growing movement, denomination within Judaism. Those are the Pew reports, both the one that came out this year and the one that came out in 2013. So those are facts that have been proven and studied by professionals. Those studies don't explain the why. And so I'll try to give my understanding of the why. And my understanding is because when you try to be everything to everybody, then why do I need to choose you? In other words, if Jewish values are defined as be a nice citizen, treat nice the animals, care for the environment, equity, equality, diversity, just to give a few examples.

Adrian McIntyre:

Respect your parents. Be a good neighbor.

Rabbi Michael Beyo:

Be a new good neighbor, say good morning, and good night to people, et cetera, et cetera. Then give me a reason why I should or should not keep the stringency or the leniency of a Jewish life? If the focus of Judaism is those topics that I just mentioned as an example, then I don't need to keep kosher. I don't need to keep Shabbat. I don't need to dress in a specific way. I don't need to pray in certain times, I don't need to study certain text. I don't need to do 90% of what Jewish life has been for 99% of Jewish history. And so we are not giving a reason to the youth to uphold Judaism and Jewish culture and Jewish tradition because we have watered down in Orthodoxy there, and there is a lot of issues within Orthodoxy, a lot of problem. I mean, no group is perfect, but we are talking specifically about this point is the opposite. Meaning the focus is not about universalism. The focus is not about universal values, but the focus is keep kosher, keep Shabbat, keep the holidays, dress in a certain way, study in a certain way, et cetera, et cetera, which then by the nature of particularism, it keeps people within. And to those that look into it, it gives a, often, well sometimes, depending on the person, it can give a higher sense of purpose. Usually you see that when Orthodox families have a non-Orthodox guest to their Shabbat table, and often it is for the first time that the non-Orthodox person has encountered maybe an Orthodox Shabbat table. And the fact that there is no telephone, there is no TV, there is no computers, and just family and friends around the table, talking, singing, and eating. This is something that people want. That's why Thanksgiving dinners are so important because people want to get together and have those dinners. I am not saying at all that, also non-Orthodox families have Shabbat dinners. Absolutely. But Jewish life in the Orthodox world is much more particularistic. And therefore, in my opinion, it can give a purpose in life that, because of its particularism, attracts certain type of people, while a universal approach waters down. Why be Jewish? Why be Muslim? Why be Christian? I'll be a universalist. That's my opinion. I have not, I've not done a comprehensive study of this, but it's from my life and my experiences.

Adrian McIntyre:

If you enjoyed today's show, please subscribe to Conversation with the Rabbi on your favorite podcast app. You can also find the latest episodes online at ConversationWithTheRabbi.com For all of us here at PHX.fm, I'm Adrian McIntyre. Thanks for listening, and please join us for the next Conversation with the Rabbi.

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